- - Thursday, June 25, 2015

Of all the hot-button issues that divided conservatives and liberals over the past generation, few sparked more heated debate than crime and punishment.

In the past decade, however, that has changed. In a remarkable political turnaround, criminal justice reform has emerged as a rare area of bipartisan agreement in an otherwise sharply divided Congress. We are delighted that both parties are working together to find solutions to the crisis in our justice system. And we are particularly proud that conservatives have taken a leadership role in the effort.

On Thursday, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican, and Rep. Bobby Scott, Virginia Democrat, introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act of 2015 (SAFE), a bill that reforms the criminal justice system from top to bottom. The bill applies lessons learned in the states, and combines many of the best features of congressional proposals on justice reform from the last few years.

These reforms come none too soon. Our federal prisons are in crisis, and expanding at a rapid pace. Between 1980 and 2013, the federal incarceration rate jumped 518 percent as we sent more people to prison and kept them there longer.

Naturally, costs shot up along with that growth. Taxpayers will pour $6.9 billion into the Bureau of Prisons this year, with substantial increases each year into the foreseeable future unless Congress fixes the system. The inspector general of the Department of Justice has said that this level of spending is “unsustainable.” Federal prisons are squeezing out spending for counterterrorism agencies, victim services, the FBI, and other important crime-fighting initiatives.

We all agree that violent, dangerous criminals should be in prison, and the cost of incarcerating them is money well spent. But roughly half of the inmates in federal lock-ups are drug offenders, and many of them can be held accountable for their crimes through more effective, less expensive means.

We are part of the conservative criminal justice reform movement Right on Crime, and we applaud Reps. Sensenbrenner and Scott for their sponsorship of the SAFE Act. Their legislation revamps the federal criminal justice system — from who we put behind bars, to how long we keep them there, how we prepare them for release, and how we help them live productive lives within the law when they return to the community.

This front-to-back approach reforms the entire system, not just one part of it. For instance, the bill reforms sentences so that they hit hardest at the “major players” rather than low-level operators. It offers mental health services and drug treatment, encourages faith-based and community groups to work with inmates to teach them such important items as job skills, family reconciliation, making moral decisions, and mentoring to help offenders think through the decisions that confront them when they leave prison.

These ideas aren’t new. In fact, they draw on the experiences of the states that have tested these approaches, and found them to work better than the status quo — saving billions of dollars while keeping the public safe.

The states have figured out that they can’t afford to pour money into badly bloated prison systems. Like the federal government, states also experienced three decades of skyrocketing growth in prison populations and costs. The strain of heavy correctional spending — coupled with new evidence proving the success of innovative ways to correct offenders’ behavior at less cost. Many states, particularly red states, have found it is counterproductive to send low-level offenders to prison. It not only costs the taxpayers more than a college education, but they come out more likely to commit more crimes than those punished and supervised in the community.

The results have been heartening, not just for taxpayers and government leaders, but for offenders and their families seeking to rebuild their lives as well. By concentrating prison space on violent and career criminals while strengthening probation and other alternative sanctions for lower-level offenders, states are reducing imprisonment and crime, and saving a lot of money in the process.

Texas is a compelling example.

In 2007, Texas canceled prison expansion plans, and put much of the savings into drug courts and treatment. Since then, the state has cut its inmate population, closed three prison facilities, and saved billions of dollars. Most importantly, violent crime rates in Texas are lower than they’ve been in almost half a century.

South Carolina got serious with its version of reform in 2010, toughening penalties for violent criminals while creating alternatives for lower-level lawbreakers, who made up half of their prison population. The payoff: Recidivism rates are much improved, the state has closed one prison, with a second to close soon, saving more than $12.5 million and counting.

The list goes on — Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Utah, Pennsylvania, Mississippi — and while each state tailored the reforms to fit its system, the basic formula has been the same. By anchoring our correctional strategy in the growing body of evidence about how to effectively reduce recidivism, we can cut crime and spending while holding offenders accountable for their actions and keeping neighborhoods safe.

At Right on Crime, we’ve worked with conservative leaders to apply our principles of public safety, limited government, accountability and fiscal discipline to the criminal justice system. Conservative state officials across the country are leading the effort for reform.

And grass-roots conservatives are enthusiastic about this movement, too. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference the session on state criminal justice reforms was packed. Activists stood along the walls and sat on the floor in the aisles. They expressed whole-hearted support for the effort to reform the justice system. Eli Lehrer wrote in the Weekly Standard that criminal justice reform is “perhaps the most important conservative domestic policy initiative in decades.”

All of this interest proves that our nation’s conversation about crime and punishment is no longer the ideological shouting match it used to be. Today, we know what works in the correctional field and what doesn’t, and the debate is no longer about whether we need reform. There is bipartisan consensus that reforms are imperative. Now is the time for conservatives to lead the charge. Let’s seize this occasion.

Newt Gingrich is a former speaker of the House of Representatives. Pat Nolan is a former California state assemblyman who served 15 years as president of Justice Fellowship.

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